After two months, competitive games resumed in a major European league yesterday as the Bundesliga kicked off their first round of games since the coronavirus pandemic ensued. Like many, I have mixed feelings about professional sports resuming while there is still a relatively high risk of infection (an entire team in 2. Bundesliga is currently in a 14 day quarantine after two players tested positive after resuming training). Still, after being starved of live sports for a couple of months, I couldn’t help myself from tuning in. After seeing games in this new atmosphere - or lack thereof - it got me thinking about what things might look like for Jurgen Klopp and his Liverpool squad if Project Restart is approved.
The most obvious thing you notice when watching the Bundesliga games is the lack of fans. Unsurprisingly, the games have a distinct preseason feel with the voices of the players and the coaching staff echoing around the grounds. While these are all professionals, it can be so easy to unconsciously ease up without a vociferous crowd egging the players on. Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool side are an emotional team that feed off of the boisterous energy of the crowd at Anfield. It will require every ounce of the razor-sharp focus that Jurgen Klopp drills into his team to maintain their intensity, likely more so than the machine-like Manchester City who are used to playing in their - ahem - naturally quieter confines. Still, this Liverpool squad have proven to have the mental fortitude to handle pretty much everything thrown their way. It may not be pretty, but the squad should be able to handle the lack of fans to continue their inevitable march towards the title.
Along with the preseason feel from the lack of fans, it’s also quite apparent that players are fairly rusty after the layoff from regularly training together. With procedures in place to minimize contact between players, there are few opportunities for the full squads to train together during the mini-preseasons. For Liverpool, a team that thrives off of punishing team for mistakes, this could be a boon. Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mané, Jordan Henderson, and Georginio Wijnaldum in particular will be salivating at the chance to pounce on errant touches and loose passes to jump start the attack.
The other wrinkle we’ve seen this first week of games in Germany is the use of the extra substitutes. The Premier League are also toying with the idea of allowing five substitutes. With the Premier League slated to start up during the heat of June, coupled with Liverpool’s high intensity style of play, it will be interesting to see if Klopp turns to his bench more than usual. The German manager has tended to value conditioning and continuity on the field over using substitutes. Liverpool, however, also happen to have on of the deepest squads in the league, and could use the talented bench to keep pressure on teams while keeping players fresher and (hopefully) less prone to soft muscle injuries.
With only two games needed to clinch the league, I think Klopp will keep his usual pattern of minimal substitutions unless Liverpool are up big. Once Liverpool clinch, however, I think he will rotate and substitute much more frequently for the safety of the players. Since the training protocols only allow smaller groups of players to train together initially, it will be interesting to see if Klopp has groupings of midfielders, in particular, train together as a unit that can be swapped in and out to help keep up the familiarity between the players.
Of course, this is all just speculation. It is still yet to be seen if the Premier League will kick off again this season, or if Liverpool will be crowned champions based on the current table or a points per game calculation. While we all hope for the best with the Bundesliga, if there is an outbreak of the coronavirus, the league will likely be shuttered again and the rest of the European leagues will be put on ice.